Pros and Cons of Being a Community Counselor
Counseling job positions are expected to increase for all specializations, from the years 2010-2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Becoming a counselor usually requires completing a graduate degree; however, for that level of education, counselor salaries are on the low side. Find out more about the pros and cons of being a community counselor, and see if this occupation seems right for you.
|PROS of a Community Counselor Career|
|High job-growth field (19%-37% growth predicted between 2010-2020)*|
|Several specializations (including marriage, family and addictions counseling)*|
|Works in a variety of community locations (Education, healthcare, government)*|
|Help people improve their lives*|
|CONS of a Community Counselor Career|
|Low salary based on education requirement (average salary ranges from $37,000 to $57,000, depending on specialization)|
|Graduate degree (Master's degree commonly required for most specializations)*|
|Regulated profession (State licensing/certification, continuing education)*|
|Deals with stressful and sensitive situations*|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Essential Career Information
A community counselor provides counseling support and rehabilitation services for people going through all kinds of difficulties in life. A counselor interacts with people of all ages, groups and families, as well as members of related service fields like health care or school administration. A counselor's typical daily duties can include interviewing and evaluating their client, identifying goals, designing strategies for treatment and helping to implement and maintain those strategies. Counselors have a high degree of responsibility to their clients and deal with difficult situations on a regular basis.
Since counselors provide services to a wide variety of groups, they can work in many different settings, such as schools, health care centers, rehabilitation facilities, prisons or private practice. Most counselors work full-time in an office setting; however, some counselors may work nights, evenings and weekends to accommodate the needs of their clients.
Career Paths and Specializations
Since community counseling is a broad field, it's divided into various areas of specialization: school and career counseling, mental health counseling, rehabilitation counseling, substance abuse and behavioral disorders counseling and marriage and family therapy. According to the BLS, the majority of counselors employed in the nation are school or career counselors. These types of counselors work with students in all levels of secondary schools and postsecondary career and vocational centers by providing academic, career, emotional and social support.
Rehabilitation counselors are focused on providing assistance that will improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors help people with behavioral or addiction issues overcome their problems, often working alongside families and members of the healthcare community to provide comprehensive support. Mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists use therapeutic methods to treat mental disorders and emotional issues arising within families and marriage.
Salary Information and Career Prospects
In general, the availability of counseling jobs is expected to be greater than the number of counseling program graduates from the years 2010-2020, according to the BLS. This goes for all types of specializations, but especially for marriage and family therapy or mental health counseling. The BLS predicted that the U.S. should see an increase of nearly 60,000 jobs for those specializations by 2020. Additionally, substance abuse counselor employment is also expected to see an increase of around 23,000 jobs by 2020. This increase can be attributed to factors like the growing overall population, especially amongst specific groups like students or the elderly. Another factor is the overall increase in people seeking counseling services for help with personal issues.
There is a range in counselors' salaries depending on their specialization. According to the BLS in 2011, school and career counselors were the top earners with an average salary of $57,000. Marriage and family therapists earned around $49,000 yearly. Substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors earned a similar average salary of around $43,000 annually. Lastly, rehabilitation counselors earned the least, with an average salary of $37,000.
What Are the Requirements?
Education and Licensing Requirements
Whether for licensing or employment, the most common educational requirement for most counseling specializations is a master's degree. Many states have counseling licensing requirements that include the completion of an approved academic program, having sufficient work experience and successfully passing an examination. State-approved academic programs are usually at the master's degree level. However, the academic requirements can vary depending on state regulations and/or employer. This is especially true for specializations like substance abuse counseling, where academic requirements can be anything from a high school diploma to a master's degree. States have varying requirements for formal licensing, especially depending on specialization. For example, all marriage and family therapists and mental health counselors need to be formally licensed, but not all substance abuse and rehabilitation counselors need to be.
Aside from meeting academic and experiential qualifications, counselors should possess traits and skills needed to effectively handle diverse populations and sensitive situations. They should be caring people who want to help others. Job postings on Monster.com list other qualifications to be a counselor, such as:
- Good communication and listening skills
- The ability to show empathy and compassion
- Effective handling of clients with physical/mental conditions
- Possess mature judgment
- Driver's license with good record
- Clean criminal and drug screening tests
What Are Employers Looking For?
In general, counseling positions can be readily found due to the wide variety of industries looking for educated or experienced counselors. But not all counseling positions require you to be formally licensed or have a specific degree; some employers may have lower academic degree requirements, but usually ask for solid work experience in exchange. Even though some positions may be available without a graduate degree or licensing, the BLS reports that having a master's degree along with your state license usually leads to the broadest employment opportunities for counselors. See below for some examples of open job postings for counselors in March 2012:
- A Massachusetts healthcare center is looking for a clinical counselor with a master's degree in a related area and three or more years of experience dealing with substance abuse and co-occurring disorders.
- An outpatient treatment center in Pennsylvania is seeking a counselor with a master's degree and experience in social services to administer and develop programs for adults with mental health disorders.
- A Virginia counseling center wants a community counselor with a minimum of a bachelor's degree (but preferably a master's degree) in a human services field like counseling, psychology or social work.
How to Stand out in the Field
Education and Experience
According to the BLS, some counseling specializations may lead to a greater number of employment opportunities, such as marriage and family therapy or substance abuse counseling. For example, the BLS states that employers find a lack of qualified substance abuse counselors for hire due to the lack of potential candidates' education and experience in working with addiction. Thus, completing a specialized substance abuse counseling degree program that includes work experience courses may improve your chances to secure a substance abuse counselor job position.
Voluntary License and Certification
Getting voluntarily licensed or certified may also be helpful in increasing your attractiveness to a potential employer. For example, the BLS states that in many cases, employers don't require career and rehabilitation counselors to have licenses. Therefore, getting voluntarily licensed in either of these specializations can show potential employers your expertise in the field. The BLS goes on further to state that some employers looking for rehabilitation counselors may favor those that have earned voluntary certification as a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC).
You can find voluntary certification for general counseling or any of the major specializations at non-profit, professional organizations like the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification, which offers the CRC designation mentioned earlier and The National Credentialing Academy, which offers family therapist certification. The National Board for Certified Counselors offers one general counselor designation and three specialized designations for mental health, school or addictions counselors. Voluntary certification almost always includes academic degree requirements, work experience and sometimes also requires passing an examination. Join a professional organization for professional development opportunities like annual conferences, peer networking and workshops.
Alternative Career Paths
If you'd like to serve your community through social services, but prefer to take a more research-based, scientific approach to your studies, you can consider becoming a psychologist instead. Psychologists study human behavior and relations using scientific research and look for patterns to understand and interpret correlations. The role of a psychologist is similar to a counselor, and they perform many of the same duties, such as interviewing and evaluating clients and developing and implementing treatment plans. However, psychologists also commonly focus on research, conducting experiments and studies for increased understanding of human behavior.
There are many specializations within the field of psychology; some of these are similar to those found in counseling, such as school psychology and clinical psychology. However, you may need to complete more education, since the minimum education requirement for psychologists who work directly with patients by providing clinical services is typically a doctoral degree. In addition, like counselors, psychologists are licensed and regulated by states. However, psychologists are generally better paid than counselors, and according to the BLS, clinical, counseling and school psychologists earned around $73,000 annually as of 2011. The BLS also reports that the employment demand for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists will increase by a rate of 22% from the years 2010 to 2020.
If you have a strong desire to help people by working in the field of human health and social services, but don't want to do counseling with patients as your main focus, you can consider becoming a social worker. Social workers give social services assistance to people having trouble coping with the challenges of life. For example, a family social worker may help find housing for an abandoned child. Although not all social workers are required to be licensed by their state for employment, clinical social workers need a master's degree and formal licensing. Generally, social worker academic requirements vary by position, ranging from a bachelor's degree for most direct-service positions to a master's degree to work as a clinical social worker. Social workers are employed in many of the same settings as counselors. According to the BLS, child, family, schools, mental health and substance abuse social workers earned a salary of around $43,000 in 2011. The BLS expects the employment demand for social workers to increase by a significant 25% from the years 2010 to 2020.